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Restaurants offer deals for holiday parties

Eateries use incentives to help combat celebration slump

Despite the economic Grinch threatening to steal corporate party business as it has over the past two holiday seasons, a number of operators say early incentive efforts have been helping them boost sales over last year.

However, even for those operators managing to book parties during the holidays, the season could be merrier.

One survey released in November predicted 2010 would see the worst holiday party slump in 22 years. The poll, conducted by Amrop Battalia Winston, a global executive search firm based in New York, found only 79 percent of businesses were planning a holiday celebration, down from 81 percent in both recessionary 2009 and 2008 — the previous lows in the survey, which started in 1989.

“Compared to last year the amount of parties seems to be the same,” said Ashley Lightfoot, private events manager at the Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in Dallas. “They booked later than normal but seemed to be very selective while doing research. I had lots of inquiries early but the bulk of the groups did not confirm until October-November.”

And costs remain top of mind, Lightfoot added. “I have noticed the major thing is the wine selection,” she said. “For instance, I have a repeat group from last year that chose wine in the $50- to $60-a-bottle range and this year is going with our house [wine] at $28 per bottle.”

That is a trend seen throughout the year, Lightfoot said. “I can pretty much say that for the whole year: same amount of parties but spending less.”

This season, restaurant operators started offering incentives early to inoculate against the party-blues flu.

The 15-unit Texas de Brazil churruscaria chain had offered gift-card rebates to parties of 15 or more for bookings made before Nov. 30. The deal was to give 10 percent of the holiday party cost at regular dinner menu prices, up to $1,000, in gift cards.

Wolfgang Puck Catering offered early booking discounts for holiday events. And Dave & Buster’s offered free room rentals or more than half off game play for those booking before November.

Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group of Boston offered complimentary butler-passed hors d’oeuvres for events booked prior to Nov. 15. And the eight-unit chain’s private-dining managers planned fixed-price dining packages, exclusive pricing on signature items and custom menus.

Nicole Lierheimer, spokeswoman for Smith & Wollensky, said, “The holiday promotions have been helpful in motivating event bookings.

“We are pleased to report that sales for the holiday dining season are up, thanks to the ongoing support of our loyal customers and the communities in which we do business,” Lierheimer said.

Coming off the dismal party-spending years of 2008 and 2009, many companies were pleased that some business wallets actually were open this year.

At Ruth’s Chris’ Steakhouse, holiday party reservations rose 17 percent over last year’s depressed numbers. “We are looking forward to our most successful holiday private-dining season since 2007,” Mike P. O’Donnell, president and chief executive of parent Ruth’s Hospitality, told securities analysts in late October.

Amrop Battalia Winston’s 2010 “Annual Survey on Corporate Holiday Celebrations,” which polled 103 leading companies, also found that for those companies holding celebrations, just over a quarter, or about 28 percent, said their parties will be more modest. This follows on the heels of the nearly half, or 49 percent, who downsized in 2009.

Amrop chief executive Dale Winston said, “Fundamentally, those having holiday parties this year are much more optimistic about the year-ahead, while those not having parties are more pessimistic.”

Among other survey findings:

• Celebrations this year will not be for client or business prospects. Only 5 percent of those holding parties intend to invite clients and friends. Over two-thirds — 69 percent — will be “employee only,” while 26 percent of organizations intend to invite employees and their families to gatherings.

• Companies said they were planning not to skimp on cocktails. The number of companies expecting to serve alcohol increased this year, to 79 percent, which is up from 73 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2008. The survey high was in 2000, when 90 percent served cocktails.

• After-work parties are increasing in popularity. Of those conducting holiday celebrations, 57 percent are expected to be evening affairs compared with 53 percent in 2009. About 43 percent were planning holiday lunch parties compared with 47 percent in 2009.

• Many companies are expecting to get away from the office. More than three-quarters, or 77 percent, of firms said they were planning to host their parties off-site, up from 67 percent last year. And 76 percent of those companies said they would be holding a party “off-site” at a restaurant.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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